Monday, November 26, 2012

Jessie Lyon - Appropriate Technology Technician in Nicaragua

I write you from La Casita Solar, the restaurant of the Mujeres Solares de Totogalpa. The dining room is spacious and breezy, and in the kitchen Doña Adelina squeezes fresh oranges for lunchtime.  Mauro, the only man of this twenty person cooperative, hoes the vegetable garden beside the restaurant.  Nimia, the cooperative’s administrator, hosts a meeting in the gazebo by my table.  This is where I work and this is who I work for.

I arrived in Sabana Grande after two weeks of Spanish immersion in El Lagartillo, a thirty-family community southwest of here.  Four hours of Spanish grammar everyday quickly gave me the skeleton for a new language.  Soon I was squawking away with my teacher Rosa, and the other students at the school.  El Lagartillo is an exceptional place, grinning with pride for their school, a solar-powered library, a children’s drama program, stunning landscapes, a strong socialist history and their community band, Los Rusticos.
Five hours across the rural Nicaraguan badlands took me and my backpack to the side of the Pan-American highway.  After great confusion I found Sabana Grande and my host family and new roommates, a grandmother and her two grandchildren.  I fit so comfortably in this girly house, and before I knew it I had a rhythm to my days and a whole new life.
Working for the cooperative takes the schedule and pace of typical Nicaragua—relaxed, calm yet meaningful and demanding.  I contribute half my time to current projects started by the Mujeres and their partner NGO Grupo Fenix, and the other half to my own initiatives.  With fellow intern Benjamin Pedro, I build and install bottle lights and work to improve los fogones mejorados, a project in which three solar women sell wood-efficient stoves.  Last week I helped a group of students install a solar system in a local house and built a solar cooker with Reina and Rumalda, two members of the cooperative’s construction committee.  I am in the process of putting pictures and biographies of each member on their website, and organizing English and music classes for kids during their Christmas holiday in December and January.  Today I prepared plans and rootings for a medicinal herb garden.  My favourite project promotes local micro-enterprises for a youth group here.  I am applying for a small grant to start a bicycle rental company for volunteers and tourists.  Entering the world of funding has been an incredible and inspiring challenge.
So, life is grand, and I feel exceptionally lucky to be a Falls Brook intern.  Between work days, my friends and I travel to canyons, waterfalls and beaches.  We snack on fresh guava fruits and tiny bananas.  We follow the ups and downs of Sabana Grande’s baseball team.  Nicaragua remains generous and warm.  I am so looking forward to what is to unfold in the chapters ahead.
Romalda drills the frame for a solar cooker. 
Jessie helps Grupo Fenix volunteer Alex, improve his design for a new solar
Ben, Jessie and workshop attendees install a solar system into a local home.

Update from Chelsea Scheske - Organic Agriculture Facilitator in Cuba

¡Saludos desde Cuba!

I arrived in Pinar del Río a month ago and already I’ve seen, done, and learned so much.  In a typical week, Lina and I spend two days working in the office on tasks like data analysis for the diagnostic we’ve been doing for the project.  During the remaining three days, we bike out to the farms and work with our farmers.  I love that we have the freedom to pedal around the Cuban countryside, it’s a great balance for those days spent with our heads down in the office.

Lina and I have been hard at work implementing a medicinal plant project with the support of Professor Suarez from the University of Pinar del Río, Cuba.  This project is part of a larger program under the banner of PIAL (Programa de Innovación Agropecuaria Local).  The mission of this program is, in summary, to foster decentralized decision making in order to incorporate farmer knowledge and experience into agricultural innovation.  As most of you probably know, decentralized decision making is a huge part of food sovereignty, so as a food sovereignty enthusiast this is an AWESOME program for me to be a part of.  It’s really been great to have Lina here with me.  As she’s done her masters and will soon be doing her Ph. D on Cuban agriculture.  She’s accumulated a LOT of knowledge on the subject.  Cuban agriculture is organized much differently than Canadian agriculture, and with its numerous different cooperative structures it can seem a bit complicated at first.  Believe me, I’m taking full advantage of her conocimientos!

Right now we’re working with several local farmers to develop medicinal plant propagation on their farms.  This is pretty cool: in Cuba, every province has a specific farm dedicated to the production of medicinal plants.  Here it’s the Finca de Plantas Medicinales de Pinar del Río.  This farm supplies medicinal plants to the provincial medicinal plant factory, which in turn processes the plants for distribution among the population.  This includes isolating the medicinal element and expressing it in forms like tinctures, pills, ointments, etc.  The project we’re working on is in place to help supply the provincial medicinal plant factory with certain plants that are in high demand, and are not being supplied in great enough quantities by the provincial medicinal plant farm.  I think it’s so interesting that Cuba has a whole sector dedicated to the production and distribution of medicinal plants.  It’s cheaper than producing pharmaceuticals, many would say healthier, and it’s helping to keep traditional medicinal knowledge alive.  I’ve learned so much about “traditional medicines” since arriving.  In contrast to Canada, the majority of the Cubans I’ve met have at least some kind of knowledge of medicinal plants, and most grow them in their houses.  It’s pretty inspiring.

Working in Cuba is much different than working in Canada.  Because of the difficulty in getting certain supplies, sometimes it takes a LOT of creativity to get simple tasks done.  But the people here have responded to the challenge.  It’s seriously amazing to see what kinds of innovations these farmers have come up with!  Along with them I’m being forced to “think outside the box”, and in terms of personal development it’s been great for my problem solving skills.  For example: Need to cut the grass?  Here’s a machete!  Need a toothpick?  Use this machete!  Want a haircut?  Machete!  You get the idea.  By the time I’m done this internship I’ll be able to use a machete for absolutely everything, including shaving my legs.  It’s going on my CV, count on it.

Not only are we able to work with local farmers and medicinal plants, we’re using Permaculture and Analogue Forestry principles on all the farms!  For example, on Tony’s farm we’re implementing a permaculture design based on medicinal plants to demonstrate the benefits of using permaculture principles to grow medicinals, which are notoriously sensitive.  We’re using mostly tires and rocks, which Cuba has in abundance, to make things like raised beds, mandalas, and herb-spirals.  We think it looks pretty great (check out the picture!).  Tony is a Boccachi expert, and also an avid “lombriculturalist” (worm-culturist)… so yeah, we get along!  Lina and I are also trying a “mini-lombricultura” bin in our place with the worms they use in Cuba (California Reds).  We’ve had to be creative about finding supplies and constructing the bin, but so far it’s been a success, although the dueños of the casa where we’re staying aren’t quite sure what to make of it… they’ll come around!  Lombricultura is mostly used here to process manure in large quantities for application as fertilizer in agriculture.  Composting and recycling food waste are not popular, so if we can get this vermi-compost system working with the California Reds we’re thinking about creating a workshop to give at the farms or in the schools.  You know… changing the world, one worm at a time!  I’ll keep you posted.

Tony and Chelsea with the finished Mandala design.
On Sely’s farm (another farmer in our project) we explained the benefits of sowing with the contours as opposed to down the slope and put our mad A-Frame skills into practice, mapping out the contours on a particular field with a very steep gradient.  He planted his tobacco y frijoles there last week using this technique, and we’re hoping he’ll see an improvement in his yields.  We’re also using the living fence concept in this field as another way to reduce erosion and run off of nutrients, soil and water.  As well, we’re in the process of designing an Analogue Forestry Corridor on his farm using medicinal plants, fruit trees, forage, and root crops.

I could go on, but I’ve got to save something for next time!  In summary, I’ve so far had the opportunity to meet and work with some amazing people who have already taught me so much about organic agriculture, creativity, and resilience.  I’m looking forward to 4.5 more months of it!  So I bid you adios.  Learn lots and have fun!  And of course, toil hard.

Nos vemos,

Cutting tires to be used to make raised beds in permaculture design.

Frame built using farm resources, and used to measure slope to facilitate contour

Russell Vinegar - Biodiversity Restoration Facilitator in Costa Rica

A month into my time here at International Analog Forestry Network HQ in Londres, Costa Rica, and the internship is going well. The IAFN secretariat is not directed to work in the community, but rather to help coordinate, support, and share information between analog forestry efforts worldwide, and that is what most of my time has been spent working on, via the wonders of technology. Nevertheless, we’ve been putting effort into developing positive relationships with the people here and hope that Londres can grow as a nucleus of AF activity, which means we’ve also been ‘washing our hands in the soil’ on a regular basis.

Our office location here is relatively new, so we are still getting some key elements in place. We built a swank compost shed, and have been gradually working away at a nursery (for plants, though there are plenty of babies in town), placing posts, putting in support cables, tensioning it all up, flattening the beds, fixing the shade cloth, and now stocking it up with plants. It hasn’t quite been an exercise in natural building, as we have been working with concrete supports, metal posts, and plastic shade cloth, but hopefully we have created a more permanent and impressive structure than bamboo and palms would have afford us. It is intended to serve as a communal nursery to support increasing the number and diversity of trees in the community, filling public spaces, home gardens, farms and fincas. We are lined up to design some of the landscaping for the high school once it moves to its new site, and I have started the communication ball rolling to get the staff and students involved in the process. At a meeting at the elementary school this morning I found many eager collaborators do outdoor environmental education! They have a lot of great stuff going on there already (veggie garden, hydroponics, young fruit trees, budding butterfly garden, awesome murals) which I am eager to learn more about. I am doing my best to keep collaboration and continuity in mind as we go.

After a good sweat outside in the morning, I have taken to jotting over to the stream where some fallen trees have made a pleasant waist deep swimming hole. Laying back in the water, I do my best to relax and stay calm, but can’t help but constantly anticipating the nibbles of fish. Gazing up, a huge dead tree stands leafless overhead and reminds me of winter and Canada and senescence in the fondest of ways. Rain usually begins trickling about this time and so I hustle back to the office for lunch.

Carrying on with work inside in the afternoon, a few projects have been on the go. We are preparing the structure for a huge plant database we will be hosting online to serve as a resource for designers, somewhat along the lines of Plants for a Future but inclusive of the tropics and tailored for easy AF application. At this point it is more of a head scratching, detail fixin task, but the grunt work of entering the data lies ahead. Updating Wikipedia pages, and assorted website and translation work round out the gig. Research I’ve done into carbon markets, accounting, and ecosystem service payment for some potential projects has been mostly puzzling and disconcerting, but is relevant given the rapidly growing forest carbon sector. That’s all for now.
Nursery and growing plant collection - what up!?

A snippet of Milo's land, AF in action.
Suriname cherries - just another roadside attraction.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Update from Anna Hushlak in Honduras

It is 4:45 in the morning, still dark out and the sun is just beginning to creep up over Pico Bonito. The ocean is a steady rolling roar and as I reach out my arms to stretch, I can hear the Howler monkeys out the window doing the same. So begins another day in paradise. 

Mira and I are working alongside the Fundación Cuero y Salado (FUCSA) where we live in the Refugio de Vida Silvestre. While our days may begin with a quiet – well noisy if you consider the toucans outside – wake up, they are filled with a healthy bustle of projects and to-dos. So far, I’ve had my hands full with mangrove restoration, seed collection, gathering local knowledge on medicinal plants, sourcing out herbs for planting a demonstrative medicinal garden, employing the philosophies of permaculture to kitchen gardens, juggling environmental education and English classes, and of course making sure Sundays are dedicated to cheering on Salado’s soccer team (and by cheering I mean eating Eda’s pasteles). 

The projects in Salado are especially interesting given the community’s historic, cultural, and economic diversity. Formerly owned by Standard Fruit (now Dole) the surrounding area is being transformed from coconut monoculture to a biological corridor based on the principals of Analog Forestry. As the sun comes up, Mira is already out in the fields working hard, taking measurements, mapping, digging holes, and planting a mix of fruit trees. The legacy of agriculture in the area also drew in various different communities, leaving Salado home to a mix of Garífuna and Latino cultures. Given the isolation of the reserve – a bumpy hour and a half chicken bus ride from La Ceiba, followed by a grumbling 15 minute mototaxi, and ending with a 45 minute ‘train’ ride into the reserve – the community faces substantial economic development challenges. Still, within the community, Doña Irma and Doña Fatima offer tasty lunches of balleadas and fried fish, little pulperías sell eggs and juice, Jairo busily carves jewelry in the joyería, Martiza and Indio put together solar panels and the fishermen head out every morning in their wooden Cayucos.

Upon our arrival, we were treated to an amazing ride up the mangroves into ‘Monkey Channel’ where we shared a tree of viscoyol fruit with a white faced monkey. We then headed back down the estuary and out to sea where we watched the sun set while rocking on the Caribbean. The community has been wonderfully welcoming and have invited us into their gardens and homes, taught us how to make tortillas (shaping them didn’t go so well), showing us how to properly place a fishing hook through the eyes of a fish, and a few of the young girls have even given me lessons on properly combing and pulling back my hair. Looking forward to the month to come, we are getting ready to host the community parcela kitchen garden competition, work with FUCSA to train local guides for improved eco-tourism, and of course eager to welcom Dr. Ranil Senanayake later this month. Enough for now, time to get back to work!

Que le vaya bien!

Anna + Mira  

Monday, November 5, 2012

Update from Adam Dickinson & Elisa Bernier from Dominican Republic
Well, it’s been a little over three weeks since we landed in the Dominican Republic, and plenty has been happening!  Here in the Dominican Republic, we’re working for an organization called ENDA-Dominicana (ENDA stands for Environment and Development Action, and is an international NGO based out of Senegal).  After landing in the country, we spent the first couple of days reviewing the documentation of the projects to get a better sense of what we would like to do.  There was a lot to go through, and it still feels like there are tons to learn. ENDA-Dom has been active in environmental and community development projects for over thirty years, so it’s no surprise that only a handful of people are aware of the full scope of their involvement throughout Dominican Republic.   

We also spent a good portion of the first two weeks figuring out our living situation.  Since our internships are based around the town of Cotuí, we’re primarily living at the apartment that our director rents there.  The apartment, we should add, is a palace compared to our modest digs at Falls Brook.  It is huge, has all the amenities one could want, and is in a brand new building.  It is also right next to one of the most happening nightclubs in Cotuí, the De Melissa Car Wash – so named because it is, in fact, a car wash during the day.  Many nightspots are similarly repurposed during the work day, which helps to explain why a town of 17 000 people has three massive car washing establishments.  Multi-functional landscape elements: THIS is permaculture.  We’re also renting a (far more humble) room in Santo Domingo because our work requires us to spend a day or two every week in the capital at ENDA’s main office.  The lady of the house has rented to interns before, so she knows what to expect from us. 

The main ENDA project that we’re working with is both super interesting, and very controversial.  ENDA has partnered with a large Canadian mining company, Barrick Gold, to carry out a reforestation and community development project in the area around the Barrick mine, near Cotuí.  The project itself is pretty extensive, as the area stretches from the Pueblo Viejo mine all the way to Los Haitises National Park, on the eastern coast.  The idea is to encourage landowners to plant trees on their land for the purpose of either having managed woodlots or agroforestry systems.  This would allow people to obtain an economic yield from the trees they plant, either from timber harvesting or the sale of fruits such as cocoa, plantain, or citrus.  Naturally, since the major corporate partner is a giant mining company, controversy has followed – there are protests against the mine every so often, and we’ve been told to keep a low profile when those occur.  We’ve also been shown around some of the other ENDA projects in the area – they’ve been supporting a bunch of small woodworking businesses and sawmills, with the goal of increasing local production.  While the Dominican Republic has incredible forest resources and an advanced management system, it still imports something like 90% of its lumber because the local industry has not been able to match demand.  Many of the difficulties that local industries face is due to the extremely stringent laws surrounding the right to cut down trees for lumber, which have been in place for over 50 years, since the Trujillo dictatorship.  Ironically, the result of these environmental protection laws is that lumber is imported from countries that suffer from overharvesting, such as Honduras and Brazil. 
Over the last week or so, we’ve been figuring out where we interns fit into all of this.  Our boss in Santo Domingo has urged us to get to work on spreading the word about the project, since there has not been a lot of publicity since the planting started last year, and the project staff have not had time to publicize their results.  In addition to the promotion/website work, we’ve been accompanying the technical staff of the project into the field to help with surveys and follow-up with project partners.  These visits allow us to interview involved members in order to improve dialogue between stakeholders and gather information to relay results publicly.  We’re also realizing there are lot of opportunities for collaboration through the network of interns in the area who are working on similar projects.  To make sure our outreach efforts continue after we leave in March, we are working on youth capacity building programs to teach them how to carry on with website updating and project promotion. 

And that’s not all!  We’ve also been meeting amazing people.  Our co-workers in the Cotuí and Santo Domingo offices have been amazing friends and supports over the last weeks.  We had two very memorable couchsurfing experiences with wonderful, generous hosts while we were finding places to stay and becoming acquainted with the Dominican life.  The project partners that we have met in the villages around Cotuí have been incredible and welcomed us into their homes from the beginning.  We’ve also met some international interns from Canada and Korea, and have heard of others from Japan and the United States in the area.  All in all, I think we’re in for a really wonderful few months!

Naomi Krucker – Organic Agriculture Facilitator in Mexico

After about 2 months in Mexico the fruits of my labour are really starting to blossom! Upon arriving in Mexico I was put in charge of a preexisting ‘garden’ that had been let go. ‘Let go’ was a bit of an understatement, however the jungle I had been gifted is now a lush Garden of Eden, full of a variety of different fruits and vegetables. Conquering the many obstacles along the way has made the fruit we are now enjoying even more delicious!
The community I am part of is called the Kibbutz, located near the town of Queretaro. We are aiming to be a sustainable community and a big part of that is growing all our own food. This is the first time they are growing organically here, so this process is very new for the community and sometimes challenging.  Climate differences, compost, and insects are some of the challenges I have been battling over the last 2 months, but I think I am coming out on top! I work right now with one other member of the community in the gardens, but have begun promoting an internship/ volunteer program here. I should mention the Kibbutz is also a religious space that host events, and welcome volunteers from all over the world to be a part of the community. The 30 hectares is covered in beautiful fields, architecture, and orchards of all the fruits you can think of. I feel very privileged to be a part of this ‘utopia’, as we call it.

My main goals here are: 1) grow enough food to sustain the community and visitors 2) Also grow enough food for 25 other families a month that will receive baskets of vegetable, this project is called ‘Club Agricola’ 3) Host a series of workshops centered around agriculture (chicken raising, organic pest management, permaculture,… and more to come!) 4) Eventually sell produce at an organic market in a nearby city .

More recently I have become involved in the promotion of volunteers with the emphasis on growing organic food. I would like to take interested students under my wing as interns for the remainder of my time here to have them grow and learn to farm organically! I have also been putting a lot of the permaculture skills I developed at FBC into practise here at the Kibbutz! I think an intern/ volunteer program focused on the gardens is a good way to ensure that the gardens continue after my time here is done.

Apart from work, I have made some incredible friends who have made it their job to expose me to every Mexican thing they possibly can. I have already travelled to many different cities, participated in some wild traditions and holidays, and eaten some things I didn’t even know could exist. I very much feel like a part of the community I live in and can’t imagine leaving in a few months!